The problem with the ‘pro-migrant’ lobby

The elite is embracing immigration for really bad reasons.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

As the migrant crisis in Europe intensifies, we republish spiked editor Brendan O’Neill’s 2010 essay on some radical changes in the immigration debate.

In recent decades, various UK governments at various different times allowed migrants to enter Britain for economic reasons, in order to compensate for a lack of labour or to boost a flagging industry. Under the New Labour government of the 2000s, something rather different occurred: migrants were allowed into Britain for political reasons, to achieve social objectives rather than economic ones.

Where earlier immigrants were expected to build physical infrastructure, New Labour hoped that allowing in hundreds of thousands of immigrants might fashion a new social and moral infrastructure. The Labour government relaxed immigration controls, between 2000 and 2008 in particular, not because it had any attachment to the idea of free movement, but as an instinctive exercise in social engineering. It was a subconscious attempt by a disoriented elite to renew Britain, to redefine it, through altering the social make-up and elevating the virtues of the migrant above the virtues of traditional British nationalism and the native working classes.

Under New Labour, the number of migrants entering Britain rose exponentially. The era of controlled mass immigration to Britain started in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, with the arrival of workers and families from the West Indies and South Asian countries as well as from Ireland and old Commonwealth nations. During that era, however, Britain remained a country of net emigration – that is, the number of people leaving was higher than the number arriving. In the early 1970s, for example, annual net immigration to Britain stood at minus 50,000.

From the early 1970s to the early 1980s, net immigration was a negative figure, flitting between -50,000 (early 1970s) and -75,000 (1981). In the mid-1980s, it became a positive figure, but stayed between 40,000 and 50,000 between the years 1986 and 1996. It is in the late 1990s that net immigration rises dramatically. In 1998, the year after New Labour was elected, net immigration was almost 150,000; in 2001 it was around 160,000; in 2004 it had risen to around 225,000. Many different factors impacted on the shifting number of immigrants from the 1950s to today: economic downturns and booms play a role in determining whether migrants will come to Britain, and in 2004 the EU was expanded to include Poland and seven other Eastern European countries, leading to increased movement of Eastern workers. However, one under-explored factor was New Labour’s use of relatively relaxed immigration to achieve, in its words, the ‘social objective’ of ‘[making] the UK truly multicultural’.

Even those of us who take a liberal approach to the issue of migration must recognise that there were serious problems with the way in which New Labour encouraged immigration (in an underhand, dishonest, censored fashion) and the reasons it did so (to try to engineer a new kind of society). Britain’s political elite has effectively weaponised immigration. But where in the past it weaponised it through the politics of race and of anti-immigration, today it has turned being pro-immigration into a weapon, a tool for expressing its discomfort with Britain’s traditionalist past and its distance from Britain’s native working classes. Among the elite, taking a ‘pro-immigration’ stance has become a way of espousing its supposedly superior values of cosmopolitanism, liberalism, official tolerance and official anti-racism, and of disciplining, policing and ultimately censoring those who do not possess such values.

Social objectives

In 2009, a former government adviser revealed that ministers frequently discussed ‘open[ing] up the UK to mass migration’. But their aims were as much social as they were economic. Indeed, there was a ‘driving political purpose’: ministers’ belief that bringing in more immigrants would make manifest their ideal of a ‘truly multicultural society’ and allow them to ‘rub the right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date’. Here, we can see how ‘diversity’ was looked upon by New Labour as more than a fluffy value – it was also considered an explicitly political tool that might be used to boost Labour’s fortunes and denigrate its critics.

In 2010, government documents released under a Freedom of Information claim confirmed what the government adviser said. In one, written in 2000, officials discussed their desire to ‘maximise the contribution’ of migrants to achieving the government’s ‘social objectives’. The document makes clear that New Labour, unlike previous governments, is keen to exploit the ‘social benefits’ of increased immigration. It argues that it is ‘clearly correct that the government has both economic and social objectives for migration policy’, and lists the ‘social impacts’ of immigration as including ‘a widening of consumer choice and significant cultural contributions’. ‘Migration policy has both social and economic impacts and should be designed to contribute to the government’s overall objectives on both counts’, the document proposed, describing this as ‘a considerable advance on the previously existing situation [where immigrants were allowed in primarily for economic reasons]’.

Strikingly, these discussions were kept as far away from the public as possible. The government adviser says there was ‘an unusual air of… secrecy’ in government discussions about immigration, and the internal document of 2000 was passed between ministers with ‘extreme reluctance’: ‘there was a paranoia about it reaching the media’ and causing concern amongst Labour’s ‘core white working-class vote’. Indeed, when the 2000 document was published as a consultation paper in 2001, it was heavily edited: all mentions of the ‘social objectives’ of increased immigration were removed. This provides a glimpse into the undemocratic elitism that drives the ‘pro-immigration’ stance today.

Too many critics interpreted New Labour’s ‘hidden’ immigration policy as an effort to ‘turn Britain into a nation of Labour voters’. Labour ‘deliberately tried to re-engineer Britain for its own political advantage’, said one observer. This makes Labour’s internal migration debate sound too conspiratorial. In truth, Labour was drawn instinctively to immigration because it was an issue that allowed the new political class to distance itself from Britain’s past and to redefine itself as cosmopolitan and constantly changing. This was not simply about winning votes; rather, the reshaping of immigration has been driven by an historic and profound crisis of values within an elite which now sees more virtue in what newcomers can bring to Britain than in what its own predecessor elites created and achieved.

Disavowing the past

Those who claim that New Labour relaxed immigration controls in order to remake Britain in its own image are missing the main point: that New Labour’s instinctive attraction to immigration is a product precisely of its lack of real values, of its cultural and political disorientation and uncertainty about what to make Britain into.

What the elite likes most about the immigrant is the idea that his arrival and his presence constantly remakes Britain, so that the absence of core British values can be glossed over with the positive-sounding notion that ours is a nation of forever-changing values, reflecting, in the words of one government minister, ‘the influences of the many different communities who have made their home here’.

Indeed, there has been an important shift over the past 30 years: from emphasising the assimilation of immigrants into the values of British society to celebrating British society’s assimilation of the immigrants’ values.

For the contemporary elite, taking a ‘pro-immigration’ stance is a way of creating a distance between itself and ‘Old Britain’, a way of disavowing elements of the past. As the former government adviser said in 2009, one of the reasons ministers wanted to increase immigration was to ‘render [the old right’s] arguments out of date’. In a speech and report published in 2001, New Labour argued that there was little fixed about ‘British identity’ and that the ‘changing ethnic composition of the British people themselves [through immigration]’ can only ‘strengthen and renew British identity’. Behind the PC-sounding language, it is a profound discomfort with the ‘identity’ of Old Britain – fixed, homogenous, nationalistic – which leads the elite to celebrate the impact of immigration on British identity today.

In April 2001, Robin Cook, then New Labour foreign secretary, gave a key speech on immigration to the Social Market Foundation. The speech is best remembered for Cook’s line describing chicken tikka masala as ‘a true British national dish’, yet the rest of it was extremely revealing. Cook outlined the reasons why his government was determined to relax immigration controls and made clear his hostility to ‘outdated’ ideas about Britishness. ‘The British are not a race but a gathering of countless different races and communities’, he said. And this lack of a singular notion of Britishness is precisely what gives Britain its strength: ‘[Our] pluralism is not a burden that we must reluctantly accept. It is an immense asset that contributes to the cultural and economic vitality of our nation.’

The most striking aspect of Cook’s speech was the period in British history he was most keen to distance himself from: the 100 years from the Victorian era to the Second World War. Cook argued that Britain had ‘always been multicultural’: ‘In the pre-industrial era… Britain was unusually open to external influence, first through foreign invasion, then through commerce and imperial expansion. It is not their purity that makes the British unique, but the sheer pluralism of their ancestry.’ However, there was a period when, unfortunately in Cook’s view, British identity was relatively homogenous: ‘The homogeneity of British identity that some people assume to be the norm was confined to a relatively brief period. It lasted from the Victorian era of imperial expansion to the aftermath of the Second World War and depended on the unifying force of those two extraordinary experiences.’ For Cook, New Labour’s celebration of diversity today is in keeping with an older British history, one that preceded and therefore was not tainted by the now largely discredited modern industrial era. ‘The diversity of modern Britain expressed through devolution and multiculturalism is more consistent with the historical experience of our islands’, he argued.

Here, we can see what underpins the contemporary elite’s embrace of immigration: a desire to distance itself from a past it feels increasingly estranged from, by elevating the contribution of external actors to British society and identity. Feeling ever-more alienated from the values and advances of modern, Victorian and post-Victorian Britain – from the growth of industry to the celebration of high culture, from old-style morality to values such as the ‘stiff upper lip’ – today’s elite contrasts the dynamism of the contemporary flow of ‘many cultures’ into the UK with the ‘homogeneity of British identity’ that existed in what is now seen as the problematic modern era.

For all Cook’s and others’ seemingly progressive attacks on ‘purity’ and ‘homogeneity’, what they were really questioning is the idea that there should be any overarching, defining values in British society. They were effectively dressing up Britain’s crisis of values, its uncertainty about what it stands for, in the positive language of a ‘constant churn’ of values from outside, where the immigrant is celebrated precisely for his lack of attachment to, and origins in, Britain’s traditional culture.

This is what underpins the ethos of multiculturalism itself: a desire to re-present a crisis of values as something positive. Fundamentally, multiculturalism is officialdom’s response to the profound identity crisis of Western society, brought about as a result of the collapse of common values, national institutions and political networks. Multiculturalism is about adding a positive gloss to this identity crisis, where the lack of common values is sexed up as ‘cultural pluralism’ and divisions within communities are relabelled ‘diversity’. Likewise, the contemporary elite’s celebration of society’s ‘continually changing values’ as a result of unpredictable migrant flows re-presents a crisis of core values as something purposeful and positive.

Indeed, the most striking thing about immigration over the past 10 to 15 years is how the elite now advertises its assimilation of immigrant culture rather than calling for immigrants to assimilate into British culture. One historian of immigration in Britain writes that in the 1950s and the 1960s, ‘The first official British response [to mass immigration] was to declare that immigrants must be assimilated to a unitary British culture’ (The Twilight of Britain: Cultural Nationalism, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Toleration, by G Gordon Betts). In the modern period, in New Labour’s words, ‘Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Our lifestyles and cultural horizons have also been broadened [by immigration]… it reaches into every aspect of our national life.’

There were many problems with the old idea of immigrant assimilation, but it was at least built on the notion of a core society into which immigrants could be welcomed. The new idea of Britain ‘absorbing and adapting’ and being constantly altered by the arrival of migrants effectively says there is no such thing as society (updating Thatcher’s dictum), only various cultures. Where the politics of assimilation spoke to a society that needed migrant workers and wanted them to be well-behaved, the politics of absorption speaks to a society that welcomes immigrants for the narrow political good of the elite, which hopes that the arrival of outsiders will somehow refresh a corroded and confused nation alienated from its traditions. This is the political equivalent of slumming it.

Disciplining the working class

If the elite now expresses its discomfort with Old Britain through the immigration issue, it also expresses its disdain for the lower orders through it, too. The ‘pro-immigration’ stance allows the contemporary elite both to distance itself from the traditional elites of the past and from the working classes of today.

In elite circles, it is now widely assumed that the key ‘immigration problem’ is not immigrants themselves but the response their arrival might provoke among the working classes; among what Trevor Phillips, former head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, described as ‘an angry, embittered, permanent underclass looking for targets on whom to vent its rage’.

Indeed, today, when members of the elite do call for curbs on immigration, they do so in the name of preventing the working classes at home from going wild rather than in the name of keeping ‘wild foreigners’ out of the UK. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, summed up this trend when, in early 2010, he and his Balanced Migration campaign group called on the government to lower immigration levels in order to avoid playing ‘into the hands of the far right [by failing to] address the concerns that have led to some otherwise decent people supporting modern-day fascism’. In the past, authoritarians restricted immigration in order to keep ‘alien cultures’ out of Britain – now some want to restrict it in order to dissipate the ‘alien cultures’ lurking within Britain’s own working-class communities.

It is through the issue of immigration that the working classes are most explicitly attacked today. Liberal opinion-formers who are normally relatively guarded in their expressions of disgust for the lower orders feel able to let rip through the issue of immigration. One columnist praises ‘hard-working bloody foreigners’ who get jobs in Britain because ‘our own people are either too lazy or expensive to compete’. Apparently, ‘tax-paying immigrants past and present keep indolent British scroungers on their couches drinking beer and watching daytime TV’. Other observers contrast ‘pleasant asylum seekers’ to the ‘fat twats’ of working-class Britain.

Such is the apparent backwardness of the working classes’ attitude towards immigrants that politicians now police their own speech in order to avoid stirring up the natives. In recent General Elections, leading race-relations groups have encouraged the party leaders to sign pledges promising not to use ‘inflammatory’ language when discussing immigration, since ‘the right to free political expression must not be abused in the competition for popular votes by causing, or exploiting, prejudice’. In the 2001 General Election, Labour encouraged its MPs and candidates to avoid using the term ‘foreigner’ in any kind of derogatory way and said nobody should ‘fight an election by exploiting the worst instincts of fear and prejudice’. This is about taking a ‘Not in front of the children’ approach to immigration, on the basis that the lower classes will be inflamed if they hear the word ‘foreigner’ or know the truth about how many immigrants have come to Britain. It is about shutting down debate in a very important issue.

In the political elite’s view, the real ‘foreigners’ in Britain are the white working classes. It looks upon them as an inscrutable, incomprehensible mass. In 2009, the New Labour communities secretary, John Denham, drew up a list of the top 100 ‘extremism hotspots’ in the UK where social deprivation threatens to ‘fuel far-right extremism’. They were mostly poor working-class communities, of course.

Today, the elite defines itself as superior to the masses, not through its traditions, its role in history or its defence of Great Britain and British values, but through the opposite: by affecting a cultural disdain for traditionalism, nationalism and sovereignty in favour of the modern values of cultural flux, cosmopolitanism and what Robin Cook described as a ‘modern notion of national identity [not] based on race and ethnicity’. It is the elite’s apparent ability to rise above the squalid traditions of the past that marks it out as superior today. And one of the key ways it does is this is by celebrating immigration for ‘shaking up’ British values and forcing the illiberal lower orders to confront their prejudices or else have them fixed by a heavy dose of intervention by the Department of Communities.

This represents a significant turnaround: in the past, British elites strictly controlled immigration in order, they said, to preserve British values and decency; today the British elite takes a more relaxed approach to immigration in an attempt to create a new kind of British decency. One thing remains constant, however: immigration remains highly politicised, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Racialising everyday life

There are many problems with the elite’s adoption of a ‘pro-immigration’ stance for cynical reasons. Most worryingly, it can only further racialise everyday life. Already, virtually every aspect of our existences – from politics to schools to the workplace – has been racialised, where everyday interaction and speech is governed by a plethora of diversity codes and a super-sensitivity about racial matters. The politicisation of the immigrant, and his elevation as superior to the white working classes, threatens to take this racialisation to another level.

All of this raises some important questions for those of us who in principle support freedom of movement. For today it is often those who present themselves as ‘pro-immigration’ who are the least progressive, expressing a profound cultural snobbery and adopting the immigrant as a cover for their own lack of attachment to a political vision or moral values. And often, those who seem ostensibly ‘anti-immigration’ – for example, some working-class voters who express discomfort with the arrival of people from abroad – are expressing an understandable, if misplaced, agitation with the values of the cosmopolitan elite. When immigration is increased without any public debate about why it is being done, when old-style British values are judged to be inferior to new cultures from overseas, and when immigrants are continually held up as better beings than Britain’s native working classes, is it really surprising that some people ask awkward questions about immigration? Having politicised ‘pro-immigration’ for elite purposes, our rulers cannot feign shock when ‘anti-immigration’ becomes a political factor, too.

The truth is that celebrating immigration as a ‘social good’ is not much more progressive than treating it as a narrow ‘economic good’: in both instances, the needs and desires of individual migrants and their families are subordinated to an abstract, external measurement. The only ‘goods’ in this debate should be the argument that it is good for individuals to have freedom of movement, and it is good for the citizens of a state to have the freedom to debate everything, including immigration. We should challenge the transformation of immigration into an elite weapon, and take the debate about free movement and borders to the mass of the population.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Brendan will be speaking at ‘The First Amendment in the 21st Century: 
Reinvigorating Old Rights for New Times’ at the Newseum Institute in Washington on Thursday 15 October. Get your tickets here.

Picture by: Martin Meissner / Press Association Images.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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